The Three Stages of Becoming a Prosperous Photographer – How Long Does It Take?

The Three Stages of Becoming a Prosperous Photographer – How Long Does It Take?

Disclaimer: This isn’t one of those articles suggesting that you buy this book to learn how to write a book about writing books. It’s not a secret recipe for success, or some sort of made up list of chores you must first complete before winning a coveted golden ticket. These three stages are noted because I’ve observed their tenants, and with a little of your own investigative digging, you’ll learn that many of your favorite photographers have resided within the boundaries of each of these stages as well.

Stage One – Learning

Estimated time: Five years.

Whether or not you made it to where you want to be sooner than what I’m about to throw out there, I think this stage is arguably the least understood and least accepted. I consider this first stage to be all about learning. During these five years, you’ll make mistakes, your style will change like the mood of a bipolar teenager, and you’ll begin to hone in on the genre or niche that you ultimately belong to. During this period of time, it’s okay to doubt yourself. You should. It’s okay to admit that others are better and more experienced than you. Because they are. It’s fine to be a second shooter, because you’ll learn this way.

Egos aside, understanding that you have a lot to gain through observation, trial, and error during the first five years of your journey will help set you up for the next stage - The building stage.

Stage Two – Building

Estimated time: Five years.

Assuming that you’ve spent roughly the last five years honing your craft and finding your place in the market, it’s now time to begin stage two, the building stage. Like a King that’s spent years developing a legion of loyal followers, it’s time to begin constructing your proverbial castle and the wall around it that will secure all of your hard work.

During this second stage, expect to work. A lot. It isn’t easy to build a strong photography business, so this next five years will be spent marketing like crazy, working as much as possible, trading time spent with friends for time spent with clients, and putting all of that hard-earned knowledge and experience in to practice. This is how you’ll build a castle. The scale of said castle is ultimately up to you.

Stage Three – Enjoyment

Estimated time: Remainder of your career.

You’ve been hard at work in the photography industry for a solid 10 years now. That’s a long time. You’ve spent years learning about your craft (which never really stops at stage one), building a solid business that you’re proud of, and you didn't give up. Now it’s time to reflect on your work and enjoy the fruits of your labor, maybe write a book, treat yourself to the keys to a new studio or office… or home. The point is, it takes many years to reach a point in this industry at which you can truly be comfortable. The harsh reality is, many never reach this final stage. I'm still hard at work reaching for it myself.


You read it right. I’m suggesting that on average it takes ten years of the photographer’s equivalent of blood, sweat, and tears before you’ll reach that comfortable level of achievement that so many of us observe every day through our favorite photographers.

Photography isn’t dead. In fact, it’s booming. As much as we’d all like to have a fast-pass to right to the front of the line, the reality is there are very few of those in circulation. The other reality is that there are a bunch of other photographers that have successfully completed stage one and stage two and deserve stage three more than you right now.

With due time, hard work, and a good head on your shoulders, you have just as much chance of reaching that enjoyment stage as the next guy. So, hang in there. I’m expecting great things from you.

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David Love's picture

I was a graphic designer for 16 years, went into photography and began mixing my skills to do cosplay compositions. Within a year I was already making a profit. Why, because my images were different than the current market and I had something special to offer. First question anyone should ask themselves is "How am I different from the pack? What do I have to offer?"

Treat every image you work on as if it's the only picture that will be in your portfolio. (Imagine if the first image they find of yours is your worst.) Word of mouth is an amazing thing if people like your work and you make them feel comfortable and they enjoy the process of the shoot. People will book with a photographer because of how easy the shoot was or how much fun they had just as much as their image quality.

Dan Howell's picture

What metric are you using to conclude that photography is booming? It has been my observation, and that of several peers, that possibly the same or slightly more photographs are being taken in the past 5 years than in past years. However, an argument could be made that more photographers are chasing the same or slightly more paying projects for demonstrably less money. To me, that is the opposite of booming. I'm not saying that you are wrong, I am just curious to know what ruler you are using.

Dusty Wooddell's picture

The “booming” comment is based on my own assessment.

Donny Cotten's picture

It's booming for uncle bob and his fancy new camera he is trying out on every wedding he can get invited to for free... LOL

Mr Hogwallop's picture

I have found certain parts of commercial photography booming. The high end and the low end. There will always be room at the top and the bottom levels. And they seem to be keeping busy, but the middle ground is going away and sadly that is where most of us work...

Chris Hawkins's picture

I spent ten years learning and finding my niche. It took me ten years to finally master my craft and you hit the nail on the head Dusty! I doubted my self I was over critical ( which is something I think we MUST do) of my self.I made a lot of mistakes and I mean a lot. I tried different genres until It finally started to fall into place. I am only now starting to dedicate my free time to the marketing side of things and I fully expect it to take at least another 10 years. Its hard when you work 12 hour shift's all week plus have 2 kids and a wife, a mortgage and a car and all the rest. So I think its ok under certain circumstances for the journey to last a little longer, Its just so frustrating watching all these photographers jet setting across the world while I am stuck here trying to raise my profile but I know with study, practice and perseverance I will get there.

Great article here. I am with you on the average times. A bit of optimism and believing in oneself really helps too. As they say, the race is not for the swiftest but for who can endure to the end. There is enough room for all of us to endure, just keep pushing through.